There are several accounts of the Fall in Blake but the invariable characteristic of them is Albion’s relapse from active creative energy to passivity. This passivity takes the form of wonder or awe at the world he has created, which in eternity he sees as a woman. The Fall thus begins in Beulah, the divine garden identified with Eden in Genesis.
Once he takes the fatal step of thinking the object-world independent of him, Albion sinks into a sleep symbolizing the passivity of his mind, and his creation separates and becomes the “female will” or Mother Nature, the remote and inaccessible universe of tantalizing mystery we now see. Love, or the transformation of the objective into the beloved, and art, or the transformation of the objective into the created, are the two activities pursued on this earth to repair the damage of the Fall, and they raise our state to Beulah and Eden respectively.
Just as Blake believed that angels are inter-relational and can interpenetrate many dimensions, a part of the divine fabric that constitutes human imagination and an extended field of gravity-like attraction and connection (“betweenness”), this piece weaves together the thought of three different but interrelated Blake commentators on angels – Mia Forbes, S. Foster Damon, and Northrop Frye – thus hoping to build, in a sense, the wings of mutual communion and flight, ones which constitute the true or ‘best’ sense of the angelic in Blake: wings enfolded within wings.
“Angel” is the Greek word for “messenger” or “emissary”. Blake used the word in the specific sense only once, in expanding Matthew 1:20, where the Angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, bidding him marry Mary. In the Bible it is not always easy to be sure whether God himself may not be intended by the word. Blake combined the two: “I heard his voice in my sleep & his Angel in my dream” (Jerusalem). But anything that speaks of Eternity may be an angel; thus the tiny skylark is “a Mighty Angel” (Milton: 12; cf.L’Allegro).
“Every man’s leading propensity ought to be call’d his leading Virtue & his good Angel” (Blake, On Lavater). Blake had one (see ‘A Dream’, Songs of Innocence; or “The Angel that presided o’er my birth”, from Blake’s Notebook 1808-26); Milton had one (Milton); also the unfortunate heroine of ‘The Angel’ (Songs of Experience). Angels guard children and give them sleep (‘Night’, and ‘A Cradle Song’, Songs of Innocence).
Introduction to William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion
This essay examines how almost the entire critical discussion of Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion enacts the exact dynamics (which we could anachronistically label ‘rape culture’) that the poem itself dramatises in order to dissect. I hope it can be of interest beyond Blake enthusiasts to anyone wanting to understand if being interested in ‘how we perceive’ affects our political and social ideas and positions, and to anyone interested in how dualistic ways of seeing (encompassing transcendence and materialism equally) abuse our bodies and the world.
Any attempt to explain Blake’s symbolism will involve explaining his conception of symbolism. To make this clear we need Blake’s own definition of poetry:
Allegory addressed to the Intellectual powers, while it is altogether hidden from the Corporeal Understanding, is My Definition of the Most Sublime Poetry; it is also somewhat in the same manner defined by Plato.
The “corporeal understanding”, according to Blake, cannot do more than elucidate the genuine obscurities, the things requiring special knowledge to understand (such as the contemporary allusions in Dante), or the literal mechanics of a poem (meter, structure, general themes etc). The “intellectual powers” go to work rather differently: they start with the hypothesis that the poem in front of them is an imaginative whole, a unique and irreplaceable event, and work out the implications of that hypothesis. The way that poetry is generally taught in schools therefore, by converting it into “corporeal understanding” – into a form of machinery – completely misses its whole point, like explaining a joke or analysing a dead body to find out what makes it tick.
For those in cars, planes and fast trains, here’s three excellent audio podcasts giving an overview to Blake’s life and works. The programmes include interviews with top Blake scholars such as Northrop Frye, Kathleen Raine and Gerald Bentley, and excellent readings from Blake’s own poetry and letters.
The central idea of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to put it crudely, is that the unrest which has produced the French and American revolutions indicates that the end of the world might come at any time. The end of the world, the apocalypse, is the objective counterpart of the resurrection of man, his return to the titanic bodily form he originally possessed. When we say that man has fallen, we mean that his soul has collapsed into the form of the body in which he now exists.
‘Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!’
As Kathleen Raine has noted, “the sleep of Albion is in a word the materialist mentality of the modern West.” However, this “materialist mentality”, for Blake, denotes not only the belief in the Newtonian universe of orthodox Science, which many are now questioning, but also the belief in “Nature” itself. For Blake, the “Creation” – the emergence of an apparently objective, natural, and material world – and Albion’s fall into “Sleep” were one and the same event.